Country diary: waking up to traces of nocturnal animals | Environment

Something’s been happening while we were asleep. This week four things have made me think this: four mornings after the nights before. Four reminders of the night shift. These dawn traces are harder to spot than the detritus of our own late-night species of reveller, those sheepish shadows occasionally spotted slinking home in the silver light of morning. The harder proof is more forensically enigmatic. Item one, a riffled bin and rubbish strewn on a trajectory of retreat across the garden. Two, a strange little thicket of barn owl feathers in a field; no carcass. Three: two badgers at different roadsides, askew on the kerb, like comatose drunks – but, alas, not. We’ll come back to item four.

It’s the night season again. Early November, when the clocks shift, the pumpkins rot and the smell of smoke and gunpowder clears from the air to leave darker dark, earlier dark. It’s tempting to think of the nights as longer suddenly, the shade stretched at a stroke. Of course, this is just a contrivance of the clock. But still, what of the night animals? To the non-hibernators, are the long winter nights like our long summer days?

No rejoicing for them, though. Here in a country town, we see the evidence more. Leaner months bring night animals closer to us as the hours of our shifts cross. More are killed on the road. Scavengers become common. But there’s that weird magic the morning after, of seeing the trace of something that was there, that was up, that was close, that was active while you weren’t. A scrap of fur caught on low-slung barbed wire, a track, scratches, scat.

And again, in the meadow this morning, something that wasn’t there the previous evening. Made by an animal that moves by day and night – cathemeral, if you want a word – but one that we all presume is nocturnal. We all presume it’s blind, too, though it can tell light from dark. The shadiest suspect of all – but no subtle traces or ambiguity here. Excavations, six of them, in a crescent just feet from the river – little dark islands in a sea of autumn leaves. Perpetrator: a mole.

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